Peer Pressure in Adolescents
In the world of parenting, peer pressure is a despised word. It's considered responsible for the usually 'rebellious' behaviour that adolescents display as a result of associating with their friends and playmates. As much as parents want to wish it away, peer pressure is a reality that will continue to influence your child in seemingly mysterious ways which you might find difficult to comprehend.
Peer pressure is a defining trait of adolescence, generally visible from the age of 10, peaking at 14, and then demonstrating a decline over the remaining duration of adolescence.
Effects of Peer Pressure
A strange tattoo on your teenager’s neck, that strange hairstyle, that weird piercing—can often all be attributed to peer pressure. But it does not stop there. There is a more disturbing tendency, under the influence of peer pressure, to indulge in socially risky behaviour, including violence, drugs, truancy, substance abuse and juvenile delinquency—all in the name of wanting to be liked by or belong to a certain social group.
At the same time, not all peer influence is bad. Just as it can lead to socially objectionable behaviour, peer pressure can also have a positive effect on adolescents by encouraging them to display socially desirable traits like honesty, avoiding substance abuse, understanding the value of hard work and displaying social grace.
A Need to Belong
Peer pressure’s significance in the lives of adolescents can be traced to basic human instinct—the need to belong. As adolescents emerge from the cocoon of parental safety and start stepping out into the big bad world of adults, their first port of call is usually their group of friends. But gaining admittance to these groups requires conformity in terms of style, values and interests, designed not only to foster a feeling of solidarity within the group, but also to distinguish the group from other groups. Adolescents usually react to this need for conformity in two ways—by totally accepting that culture, or embracing a counter-culture.
Veering away from conformity seldom goes unobserved within the peer group and is dealt with methods ranging from the mild (like using reasoning to bring the member to heel) to the severe (mockery, insult and rejection). Emerging research also suggests that the brain undergoes rewiring at this age in a way that adolescents become more responsive to the opinions of their peers. Thus, it is chiefly a combination of the need to belong, the desire to avoid confrontation, insult and rejection, and the remodelling of the brain which makes your adolescent act in seemingly strange and difficult ways.
Susceptibility to Peer Pressure
Some adolescents are more susceptible to peer pressure than others. The first determinant is age. Research suggests that susceptibility to peer pressure increases from between ages 10 and 14 when peer influence is at its peak. The development of individual personality among adolescents between the ages of 14 and 18 leads to a decline in susceptibility in these years, resulting in the waning of peer pressure influence. Gender is a second factor, where studies have shown boys to be more susceptible than girls to peer influence in indulging in socially risky behaviours like violence and delinquency.
Other factors include openness to influence and relationship dynamics. The first refers to an assessment of the degree to which adolescents are influenced by a peer’s actions to behave in a similar manner. The second refers to factors such as the quality of the relationship between the adolescent and their peers, the duration of the relationship, and the power dynamics between the two.
Finally, how a child relates to their parents plays a crucial role in determining vulnerability to peer pressure. Studies have shown that adolescents who have a secure relationship with their parents are less likely to succumb to peer pressure.
In sum, a child in their mid-teens, male, open to peer influence, with close friends that exert peer influence on him and with an insecure relationship with their parents is most likely to succumb to peer pressure and indulge in socially risky behaviours.
Resistance to Peer Pressure
You can teach your child ways to resist peer pressure—and you don’t have to wait till they reach adolescence to start. Teach them to say ‘no’ with grace and tact from the early years itself. Convey the fact that you understand the difficulty that saying ‘no’ entails—the cost of refusal can often be loss of friendship or social status—and make clear why dissent and repudiation are sometimes important to protect an individual’s larger interests.
Second, maintain open lines of communication with your child. There is no substitute for talking to your kid. Ask how their friends behave with them and try and gauge what sort of influence they exert on your youngster—positive or negative. Tell your child about the different ways in which peer pressure manifests itself so that they can recognise it when they see it. Speak to them about your own experience of peer pressure as a teenager and how you dealt with it at the time. Conversely, encourage your child to share their thoughts with you and seek advice from you in difficult situations.
Third, help your child become confident, assertive and develop positive self-esteem so that they don’t have to go looking for self-validation from their friends. Teach them the difference between good and bad so that they can make rational judgements on their own. An adolescent with positive self-esteem and a keen sense of right and wrong is much better equipped to ward off peer pressure than one with unsound values and an insecure temperament.
Finally, if you believe peer pressure is leading your child to indulge in risky behaviour, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Guidance counselling has been shown to effectively counter the effects of negative peer pressure. Consult a professional counsellor if you think you need help. Sometimes, a couple of sessions with the therapist is all it takes to get your teen’s life back on track.
If your child or someone close to you is getting negatively affected by peer pressure, an InnerHour therapist will be able to help.
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